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Alvarez signals conquest of Supreme Court

/ 05:09 AM January 09, 2018

Last week, the two PDP-Laban leaders who head the two chambers of Congress cut the holiday chatter short with unsettling messages.

Senate President Koko Pimentel, who is party president, decided it was time to point out an obvious consequence of the ruling coalition’s attempt to revise the Constitution: President Duterte’s term can be extended. On Jan. 3, he said in a text message to reporters: “We can extend the President’s term 1. If really necessary and 2. If he’s amenable to it …”

On the same day, Speaker Bebot Alvarez, the party secretary general, said much the same thing, and then dropped three more bombshells. If both chambers do convene into a constituent assembly as early as this month and complete a new constitution within the year, he told ANC in a mix of English and Filipino, the following may happen:

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First, senators whose terms end in 2019 may enjoy an extension until 2022. “Remember, those senators, their terms don’t expire at the same time. Some expire in 2019, some in 2022. In fairness, it might be better if you have all terms expire in 2022 so you don’t owe anyone.”

Second, the Senate might be dissolved under the new constitution. But he sidestepped the question about the possible dissolution by reducing the concern to politicians positioning for elective office: “Does it have to be only the Senate that they’ll run for? You can run for whatever legislative branch that will be created by the new constitution. They can run for that position. They can run for president …”

Third, the constituent assembly will vote jointly. And if the Senate resists? “If there’s a question, well, of course that’s a justiciable issue. That will go to the Supreme Court,” he said, and left it at that.

At least, Alvarez is both candid and consistent. His theme is clear: The Senate is irrelevant, or ought to be. He has called the Senate “mabagal na kapulungan” (the slow chamber); has damned Pimentel with very faint praise on the issue of Charter change (“I don’t see any reason why the Senate President will not be working on it also”—not exactly a ringing endorsement of his party leader’s position); and attacked the patriotism of those senators who do not favor the proposed shift to a federal system of government (“This is a question of patriotism, about what is right and about what the country needs”).

Pimentel offered a procedural answer to Alvarez’s characterization of the Senate: “The Senate is not obligated to pass all measures passed by the House. That is also true the other way around.” It was left to Sen. Ping Lacson and Minority Leader Frank Drilon to defend the Senate more vigorously.

I read Alvarez’s Jan. 3 statements in two ways. One, it is only a matter of time before Alvarez takes the battle directly to Pimentel, in the same way he has moved against former allies like Rep. Tonyboy Floirendo.

And two: Alvarez now knows that the Supreme Court has been tamed. He is confident enough that a majority of justices in the Court will side with his position on the question of joint or separate voting that he can simply say the Court will decide. This was what struck me the most in his statements, that he did not feel the need to demean or threaten the Supreme Court on an issue that is make-or-break for him personally and politically.

Consider his previous attacks on the Court. When the Court last June agreed to review President Duterte’s martial law proclamation (following very clear instructions in the Constitution), an affronted Alvarez questioned the tribunal’s right to hear the case in the first place. Both chambers of Congress had passed resolutions supporting the proclamation (something that was not in fact required explicitly by the same Constitution). The original Filipino of his line-in-the-sand statement is worth quoting in full: “Wala silang karapatan para diktahan ang Kongreso kung ano’ng dapat naming gawin.”

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Let that sink in: “They don’t have the right to dictate what Congress should do.”

But the justiciable issue of whether the Senate and the House of Representatives convened as a constituent assembly must vote jointly or separately is an appeal to the Court to tell Congress what to do. Why the change in attitude?

Because the President’s (and the Speaker’s) politics of intimidation and practical accommodation is working. After a majority justified the imposition of martial law in all of Mindanao with an obsequious decision, after sitting justices played their public part in assailing a chief justice facing impeachment, the Court joined the House in rubber-stamphood. Achievement unlocked!

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, Aquilino Pimentel III, Bebot Alvarez, charter change, federalism, john Nery, Koko Pimentel, Newsstand, Pantaleon Alvarez, pdp-laban, Rodrigo Duterte, Supreme Court
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